Sunday, December 31, 2017

NEUROSCIENCE AT THE PLAYHOUSE

                       




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What kind of light does the neuroscientific beacon cast upon the theatre and its place in human experience?  Mick Gordon offers up the first answer with the intriguing claim that the mind and the theatre can be usefully construed as mirror images of one another.  And the offering is particularly enticing because Mr. Gordon is not only a student and admirer of neuroscience, he’s also an accomplished playwright who has written a series of plays exploring big ideas, including On Death, On Love, On Ego, On Religion: Grace, On Emotion, OnContemporary neuroscience is much more than a promising field of research.  Like psychoanalysis before it, neuroscience has become part of our culture.  We say we’re “hard wired” to think in certain ways, we distinguish between “left-brain” and “right-brain” people, and we attach enormous credibility to explanations couched in terms of neural networks and the like.  The discoveries of neuroscience have been bundled up by popularizers and hurled with devastating impact at folk psychology and the prosaic idea that people act for reasons and with a semblance of free will.  In place of these platitudes, neuroscientists insist that our minds are just complex mechanisms, which process information and produce behaviors that enhance our survival prospects.  This conception of thought and action was introduced into the philosophy of mind some time ago (“minds are what brains do”) and is now making inroads into law and economics, challenging widely held views about free will and responsibility.
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Gordon’s claim that thoughts follow actions only gains a foothold because he gives special meanings to the words, “thoughts” and “actions.”  In Gordon’s account, “thoughts” are the product of brain processes that create stories, which are then thrust into consciousness, but only after other brain processes have generated bodily movements.  Now, even if we grant that the brain processes associated with our awareness of our movements occur after these movements have taken place, it doesn’t follow that our actions precede our thoughts because actions aren’t simply bodily movements, and thoughts aren’t simply processes occurring in the brain.  For example, if we want to examine someone’s claim “to have thought things over carefully before deciding to file for bankruptcy” (a case of thinking before acting), we’ll focus on what the person did before filing for bankruptcy rather than on the temporal sequence of her brain states, which are unavailable to us in any case.  And if we find that she’s had several conversations about bankruptcy with her attorney, has taken extensive notes about the possible consequences of bankruptcy, and so on, we then have reasons to conclude that she did in fact think carefully before acting.  And we’re justified in coming to this conclusion because this is what it means “to think carefully before acting”; it has nothing to do with the temporal ordering of brain states or processes.
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